Anxiety and avoidance go hand in hand. If you’re having a thought or physical sensation or entering a situation that creates anxiety or discomfort, it’s likely that your first impulse is going to be avoidance. “Don’t go to the party! Stay home!”; “Don’t think about your assignment – look at Instagram!”; “Don’t worry about the gym today – go tomorrow!”. Our anxious minds are great at persuading us to avoid the things we fear or struggle with.
Avoidance in the short term
Avoidance happens to be an incredibly effective strategy for reducing anxiety in the short term. Let’s use the example of a person who fears dogs. They are walking down the street and hear a dog barking in a yard a few houses up. Anxiety rises. This person decides to avoid the dog, so turns around and walks the other way. Anxiety instantly falls. What do they learn from this experience? I need to avoid dogs to cope. Dogs are scary.
Avoidance in the long-term
Over the longer-term, avoidance tends to become an unhelpful response to anxiety. Let’s think about our dog-fearing example. Imagine that this person has used avoidance to successfully reduce their anxiety every time they have heard a dog bark over the course of a few months. They have turned and walked the other way, blocked their ears or covered their eyes every time they have come near a dog. Each time, the lessons I need to avoid dogs to cope, and dogs are scary are reinforced. Over time, dogs become associated with a need to flee, and their anxiety increases.
This applies for anxiety aimed at any fear– socialising without drinking, attending a new job, thinking about finances, or asking questions in class. The more we avoid something over time, the more we fear it. Avoidance robs us of opportunities to observe our own coping and safety during the feared experience. Avoidance also provides additional time to ruminate on every possible thing that could have gone wrong, and so adds fuel to anxiety’s fire.
Facing our fears
Exposing ourselves to a feared stimulus often seems counter-intuitive at first. Get closer to that spider? Spend time thinking about my finances? You must be mad! Exposure is, however, the single most effective treatment for anxiety. Imagine that the person who is afraid of the dog decides to face their fear. Each day they spend a little more time in proximity to a dog in a safe and calm way. They might start by watching videos of puppies on youtube, then progress to standing a few metres away from a dog park and eventually spend time with a friend and their friendly pup. Initially, their anxiety is likely to increase. Over time, however, anxiety will naturally decrease. What is the lesson? Dogs aren’t that scary. I can cope!
We all have experience of exposure being a positive long-term strategy. Do you remember your first day at a new school or job? A first date or the first time you drove a car? What was that anxiety like compared with now? As we do something over and over, we learn that we can deal with the difficulties we face, our confidence increases and ultimately so does our self-esteem!
Try it yourself
Take a few minutes to think about the things you avoid: in situations, in relationships, in your mind and in your body. What fear/anxiety is this connected to? Have you provided yourself with an opportunity for exposure? If not, create an exposure ladder for yourself.
Working through exposure
At the top rung, identify your goal. At the bottom, where you are now. In between, create small steps toward your goal, which increase your exposure with each ascending rung. Work on practicing each rung for at least a few minutes each day, until your anxiety at that step is manageable. Then move on to the next rung. An example is provided below:
While exposing yourself to a feared stimulus, it’s important that you practice self-soothing strategies to give yourself the best chance to overcome the fear at each level. Take some deep breaths, practice mindfulness and remind yourself that you’re safe.
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Article written by: Kate McLisky
All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Always seek the guidance of a qualified health professional.